|Vietnam Veterans of America|
THE PIONEERING WORK OF
A soldier’s fatigues, crumpled in a pile on the ground, with the faded words, “If I’m hit take me to N.S.A.” [Naval Support Activity Hospital] printed on the back. Helmet, boots, and ammunition haphazardly strewn in front of a rifle, tagged with a Red Cross label. A pile of things left behind, explicitly missing the human element.
The sense of loss in Retired U.S. Marine Corps Master Sgt. James Fairfax’s Triage is immense. Fairfax created the piece as one of a select few Marine Corps Combat Artists who captured their experiences in the Vietnam War through art. To see war through the lens of an artist is to see documentation of what occurred, as well as the deep emotions tied to it.
Fairfax joined the Marine Corps in 1958, describing his reason for signing up as “an end to a means.” He felt that to achieve his full potential and meet familial expectations, he had to establish himself on his own to break out of his family’s financial situation.
Growing up in Southwest Washington, D.C., Fairfax’s childhood was filled with adventure. He spent lots of time in the woods: fishing; hunting for insects; and building rafts with friends on the Anacostia River. He says his sometimes fairytale childhood sowed the seeds of his vivid imagination.
Fairfax exhibited a passion for art from an early age, and his family encouraged his creativity. He would draw detailed pictures on his great-grandmother’s bedspread. Since she was blind, he says, she didn’t mind too much.
He has a distinct memory of drawing of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral procession and wowing his family with his attention to detail. In his mid-teens, he earned commissions to paint murals at restaurants near where he lived.
“Even as a schoolboy, I would constantly find myself alone, exploring museums such as the National Gallery of Art and other Smithsonian treasures,” Fairfax said. “I would quietly wonder to myself, ‘How could they do that? Perhaps one day I could achieve the same.’ ”
These excursions to the museums of our nation’s capital fueled Fairfax’s passion for art and helped him to understand the scope of the world and how artwork could represent it. Fueled by a desire to expand his borders — and inspired by his uncle’s time in the Navy — he decided to join the U.S. Marine Corps.
During his first few years in the service, he traveled frequently — to South America, the West Coast of Africa, and around the Cape of Good Hope.
Around six months before he was due to be discharged, his unit was struggling to find work on base. Fairfax jumped at the opportunity to volunteer for a surveying job. That led him to qualify as a draftsman and ultimately changed the path of his military career when he began designing bridges and other infrastructure. Other artistic opportunities would soon follow.
Fairfax was assigned to the Marine Corps Exhibit Center to work on pieces to illustrate the Marine Corps story. Fairfax ran with it.
A HUGE TURNING POINT
Suddenly Fairfax was wood crafting, painting, and making models of all sorts. He quickly impressed his commanding officer, bolstered by his work for an exhibit at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. That assignment led him to a project that would become a huge turning point in his life and career.
Fairfax was assigned to create a model of Marine One for the proposed John F. Kennedy Library in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. He had the opportunity to present his hand-carved replica to Robert F. Kennedy, and it remains in the Kennedy Library in Boston to this day.
As the Vietnam War began to intensify, Gen. Wallace Greene, the commandant of the Marine Corps, decided to revive the Combat Art Program, which had operated during the Korean War and World War II. Col. Raymond Henri, who headed the new program, initially wasn’t interested in Fairfax, as he was looking for artists from the academic world. Under those parameters, Fairfax didn’t qualify.
Fairfax began collecting references to support his legitimacy as an artist. Some of his supporters included curators at the National Gallery of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Navy Art Collection. When presented with Fairfax’s list of references, Henri acquiesced and allowed him to join the program.
Fairfax went to Vietnam in December 1968 as the only Black Combat Artist in the Marines. He contributed to the diversification of artists’ voices represented in the program and paved the way for other artists of color.Setting up shop at the Da Nang Press Center, Fairfax quickly realized that he had a lot to learn about the war and everyday life in-country. “Babies were still being born; people were still selling at the market; it was life, and in this country, a war happened to be going on.”
As a Combat Artist, he operated as a civilian and was free to move around as he pleased. That gave him unbridled access to all sorts of locations. “There were people who resented the freedom I had,” Fairfax said. “I had to be careful not to push it in anyone’s face.”
He familiarized himself with the local culture by frequenting a Buddhist monastery, where he interacted with the monks. Fairfax captured the lightness of these experiences in several of his pieces, including Christmas Tree, which depicts three Vietnamese soldiers marveling at a miniature Christmas tree. The tree illuminates the faded fatigues of the soldiers, a beautiful illustration of momentary bliss from the war.
He also had to face the inherent darkness of the war. Triage, for example, was inspired by the time he spent in an Evac hospital after a patrol he was accompanying hit a mine. Though he wasn’t hit, the grisly scene left a lasting impression.
The frequent reminders of death and destruction were hard to escape. Fairfax would often pass a supply depot while working in Da Nang, and among the wide array of equipment and materials there were what the military called aluminum transfer cases.
“We saw them as coffins, caskets,” Fairfax said in a recent interview. “They were stacked as high as the fence was tall. They were there waiting for someone, and perhaps that someone was me.”
The transfer cases and what they represented remain firmly embedded in Fairfax’s memory, and he hopes to one day make an art piece using the cases.
FROM A GRATEFUL NATION
His non-profit, From A Grateful Nation Institute, which he runs with his wife, Dr. Brenda Fairfax, is James Fairfax’s way of creating a lasting memory of those who lost their lives in the Vietnam War, while also preserving the emotions of friends and families who lost someone in other wars.
He is planning to create "From A Grateful Nation: A Eulogy", a large work of art that would include images of the things left behind by those who made the ultimate sacrifice in wartime. Although his work is indebted to the Vietnam War, Fairfax hopes his pieces can connect with those who have experienced trauma and loss in other wars and conflicts.
Aside from creating his non-profit, after his military career ended in 1978, Fairfax worked at a graphic design company in Japan for nine years before returning to the U.S. where he freelanced in advertising design. He has spoken about his military career to many high school and college students, and his oral history is part of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress.
James Fairfax’s artwork is displayed in the National Museum of the Marine Corps and continues to support the Combat Artist program. fromagratefulnationeulogy.org
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